Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I liked Solo. It was better than I expected, and even knowing about its troubled production history, I didn’t see anything about the movie that made it appear jagged or flawed or thematically inconsistent. Ron Howard’s mid-production step into the director’s seat appears to have been a good decision, and he delivered a slick space action flick.

At its core, Solo is a heist movie, and it’s a really fun one at that. We see young Han, played charmingly by Alden Ehrenreich, escape from an oppressed life on Corellia, join and then defect from the Empire, and meet his loyal friend Chewbacca (this time portrayed by Joonas Suotamo, who seems to have done a very good job of capturing Peter Mayhew’s physicality down to small gestures and cocks of the head) and his less-than-loyal frenemy Lando Calrissian (with Donald Glover absolutely nailing the role, even if a few moments leaned past Billy Dee Williams imitation to perhaps even parody) as he gets involved with an outlaw crew in a job that quickly goes south, putting them in the debt of terrifying crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany switches fluidly from charming to violent, his personality always domineering and seething with energy). To work off the debt, Han’s new crew attempt to steal Coaxium, an explosive hyperfuel McGuffin, from Kessel and deliver it to a refinery outside of the Empire before it goes boom.

The ensemble cast rounding out the crew Han associates with is great. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is folksy, rough-spun, and charming; someone who could be a mentor figure if it weren’t for his unreliability. Harrelson’s delivery suggests a worn and worldly character looking to survive, and the plot gives him the classic heist leader drive of wanting to do one more job to get out of the game. Thandie Newton’s Val presents a cold veneer and trusts no one, but in her softer moments she shows her love for Beckett. Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau, is a sort of weird uncle. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is an eager dreamer when we first meet her, but when Han rediscovers her after escaping Corellia, she already hides a thousand sorrows and sins. Clarke does a good job of tinging Qi’ra’s manner with guilt and broken spirit, but Qi’ra is also a survivor and a pragmatist and a fierce fighter. We can tell that things will never work out between her and Han as soon as they are reunited–and it’s not just the fact that she’s not around by the classic trilogy. There’s a distance between them, a distance imposed by Qi’ra herself, something we see in her eyes and hear in her voice, even though she still obviously has love for him. It’s a complicated performance and in some ways seems like a dark mirror or inversion of Han’s relationship with Leia (who is an idealist and who refuses to outwardly portray her affection for Han).

Lastly, there’s Lando’s copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a cranky droid revolutionary who secretly loves her captain. There is so much warmth and chemistry between the two. And L3 raises some genuine issues about the treatment of droids in the Star Wars galaxy. Her big moment midway through the film draws a clear connection between the restraining bolts and memory wipes used on droids and the chains and prods used on organic slaves. Disappointingly, most of her revolutionary attitudes are used for laughs, often seemingly at her expense. On one occasion, Lando asks her if she needs anything, and she quips, “Equal rights,” which makes it seem almost as though she’s in on the joke too. Even that big moment I mentioned is initiated by L3 through an incidental afterthought gesture; the fact that it spirals into something bigger is initially an obvious joke and only turns serious as it goes on. Of everything in the film, L3’s portrayal might have been the least tonally consistent. I loved L3, but I didn’t love how she was framed. The character concept was cool, and Waller-Bridge was great, but the droid was played for easy laughs for much of the film. At one point, Lando even jokes that he would wipe her memory if her navigational databanks weren’t so valuable, which seems an incredibly cruel thing to say to someone who is a friend and who is so personally outraged by the treatment of her kind. His joke really only works to the extent that we don’t take L3 seriously and view her ideals as absurd.

I want to circle back to Ehrenreich for a moment. He does a fantastic job of portraying a young, good-at-heart Solo who desperately wants to be a rogue outlaw (even if he’s always going to be a hero). He was funny, he was charming, he was clever, and he managed to convey Han’s often-backfiring efforts to quick-talk his way out of every situation. I liked him. I like that Star Wars was able to recast a major character and was able to find someone who had a loose physical resemblance to Harrison Ford but who, more importantly, could capture the speech and body language of the character. Even more so than Glover’s take on Lando, Ehrenreich’s reinterpretation of a classic character is less imitation and more adaptation; he brings something new to Han Solo, and I think Star Wars benefits from it. (But let me be clear: Glover is a tremendously joyous delight as Lando, and I love him more with everything new I see him in. I’d love to see a Lando film starring Glover getting up to wacky adventures.)

Interestingly, the plot of the film leaves young Han revealed as a fundamentally good and heroic person who can’t just walk away from people in trouble. By the end of the film, he’s had to make some hard decisions and he’s seen a lot of people die, but he’s still largely done the right thing whenever he has enough information to know what the right thing is. Sure, he steps away from open rebellion against the Empire at the end, but it certainly feels like he’s deluding himself into thinking that he can stay away from an idealistic cause for long. Quite a lot more must have happened to Han to make him the cynical criminal of A New Hope, but he’s still got plenty of years and employment with a certain Hutt to go by the end of this film.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Solo is that it is a film that can be enjoyed basically on its own, with very little understanding of the larger franchise, yet it has so many clever allusions to Legends and the new canon and provides an interesting new way to view The Empire Strikes Back [minor spoilers to follow]. I might go so far as to say that Solo is to Empire what Rogue One is to A New Hope (makes sense, given that the elder Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire).  We even get a new way of conceiving of Han and Lando’s relationship with the Falcon! Han’s relationship to Lando, in particular, feels very fresh and explosive and dynamic. A lot of the little attempts to explain Han’s background felt cheesy at worst and unnecessary at best, but I thought that giving Billy Dee Williams’s consistent pronunciation of Han a layer of irony-laden meaning was quite clever! (For an example of one explanation I didn’t like: how Han got his name. He has no family, so the Imperial recruitment officer assigns it to him? That’s fine, but it seems contradicted by the fact that Han reminisces about his dad working in the shipyards before he was laid off. Even if Han was lying to the Imperial recruitment officer, why would he continue to use Solo after deserting? Sure, we can fill in some possible reasons–maybe he didn’t like his dad, for instance, though he seems to remember him fondly and with heartbreak). While I liked the charisma between Han and Lando, I would say that Jonathan Kasdan’s assertion that Lando is pansexual is pretty flimsy within the film itself (his played-up flirtiness with Han in the Falcon as seen in the trailers is largely in response to a sarcastic comment from his copilot L3-37, and outside of that moment his flirting is basically directed toward females, specifically attractive human females for the most part, even though Glover’s delivery does always project a simmering self-confident sexuality).

Oh, and as for references, there are so many that I’m sure I missed a lot. Some that I noticed include:

And before I get into larger spoilers, I’d like to point out that Solo feels rather like Rogue One in showing more of a gritty, boots-on-the-ground, everyman’s view of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The hot rod enthusiast, street-racing young punk Solo, the grimy and broken-down environments, and the consistent action tinged with genuine emotion suggest to me that George Lucas himself might rather like this film. But it also has great attention to tone. We start off in a Dickensian sort of setting, and Corellia does have an industrial nineteenth-century vibe to it. When Han gets caught up in the Empire, he has to slug it out as an infantry grunt on Mimban, where the muddy trench warfare, senseless deaths, and even the uniform designs evoke World War I. And I know I’m not alone in noting that, as Solo becomes more heroic and his prospects for a more exciting future, free from servitude to a street boss or military officer, grow brighter, the film’s lighting in turn grows brighter, away from shady, dingy, mucky locales to environments that often pop with color. So at the least, I think director of photography Bradford Young and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon did some excellent work (not to mention the colossal art department–and it should be mentioned that the variety of aliens new and old was great, too!).

I had some issues with the film, but to discuss them involves bringing up BIG SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading now. Though I hope you’ll come back to finish after you’ve seen the film–I’d love to hear others’ thoughts!


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My biggest complaint with the film is more of a nagging sensation, really. I don’t love how the film treated women. But at the same time, they were equals in capability and importance to the plot. And while the background figures still had a male-dominated bent, the main cast was closer to balanced than most films in the franchise.

The film used several characters’ deaths to motivate our central protagonists. Val and Rio die early on. Val dies in a way that hardens Beckett, makes him even more self-interested, and prompts him to repeatedly caution Han not to trust anyone. Rio, dying, tells Han that you shouldn’t die alone. And L3 dies later in the film. I don’t think her death counts as fridging because she dies in a significant way, and she dies accomplishing her life’s mission–starting a revolution. Her death is still about her and not about furthering another character’s emotional journey (though it hits Lando really hard). It was also incredible to realize that her processing core becomes one with the Falcon’s computer–she is the ship in a very real way. It certainly puts a different spin on how Han and Lando talk about the Falcon, right? Suddenly the metaphoric seems more literal.

I say that I don’t think L3 is a fridged character. But I’m not sure if anyone is. While being stuffed into a fridge isn’t exclusively a trope about women, its sexist overtones certainly arise because of the tendency of female characters to be fridged for male protagonists’ emotional development. Characters become plot devices when they’re fridged. Are Rio and Val fridged just because they die early? I don’t know. The trope might apply here, but at the same time, it’s less odious when it’s not just women dying in that role and when there are enough women in the cast that losing one doesn’t substantially deplete the non-male presence. Women viewers might disagree with me, though! And I’d be inclined to listen to those women viewers who express dissenting voices. Maybe the fact that it was a little uncomfortable to me should be enough to tell me that representation of women in this film is still somewhat problematic. At the very least, it was weird to have Val and Rio portrayed fairly significantly in promotional materials when they would have so very little screen time.

On the other hand, there are some cool women characters here. The surprise reveal about Enfys Nest’s true identity and actual purpose is awesome, and Enfys becomes a really cool early rebel figure! Now I want to know more about her backstory–and more of what happened to her after Solo. (Probably nothing good–was that one of the Two-Tubes lurking around in her posse, or am I being a fantasy racist who thinks all Tognath look the same?) L3 brings droid rights to the center in a Star Wars film, and she’s got a sarcastic attitude that makes her a perfect counterpart to Lando. Val is cool, though we see very little of her (I can’t help but draw comparisons to Brand, though, and wonder why black women can’t have other roles than ice queen assassins in Star Wars; even Sana Starros fits that mold to some degree). And Qi’ra is a complicated character acting in her own best interests; she has her own narrative. As Beckett tells Han, “It was never about you.” I was so glad to see that the filmmakers found a way to sever Han and Qi’ra by the end of the film without needing to kill her off. Too bad she squarely falls into the outdated femme fatale trope.

I guess what I’m saying is, the film did some things right, but I’d echo the many women out there who say that Star Wars needs more women in creative positions to improve representation in the stories that appear. Men–here, Howard and the Kasdans–don’t typically set out to tell stories that are disrespectful to women. I think everyone here tried to tell a good story and wanted fully developed men and women. But women in the writing room, or a woman directing, might have led to some improved outcomes here.

I have two other complaints. Both are fairly small.

First, before this film, I could just assume that Han picked up Shyriiwook some time over his life as a smuggler and outlaw. It didn’t really matter how; it was just an interesting element to his character and reflected his bond with Chewbacca. This film, however, answers a lot of minor questions about Han but now makes this language question one of the central mysteries remaining. Han knew Shyriiwook before he met Chewbacca; he understood it pretty well and could even speak a little bit of it. He meets Chewie three years after he leaves Corellia, and that time in between was spent in the Imperial Academy and then in the infantry. So…when did he learn it? Probably not on Corellia. Corellia was locked down by the Empire, and Han was on the low end of society. He probably didn’t take Shyriiwook in school, for however long he even was in school. We don’t see any Wookiees hanging out on Corellia, and we know that the Empire basically enslaved all of Kashyyyk, so there shouldn’t be very many free-roaming Wookiees anyway. I don’t recall anything that suggested that Han’s close girlfriend from his youth knew Shyriiwook, either. If not Corellia, why would it have been the Empire? The Imperials on Mimban, even those guarding Chewbacca, don’t understand Shyriiwook (actually, why was Chewbacca in a mud pit on Mimban? He’d been enslaved for a while–did they bring him there specifically to torture him and feed him deserters and traitors?). We know from Aftermath that the Empire discouraged foreign language learning: “The Empire had little interest in learning the ways and tongues of other cultures. They didn’t even want their people to learn on their own time” (p. 33). Maybe this was yet another act of rebellion by Han. But why did he pick that language over any other? It’s a really small thing to be bothering me, but in answering so many questions, the film starts boxing in Han’s character and highlights the mystery even more. And by the way, Life Debt reintroduces the concept of Chewie’s life debt to canon–nothing in the new film directly contradicts Life Debt, but I am curious about when Chewbacca got around to swearing that oath.

Second, I’m really conflicted by the reveal that Darth Maul was the true leader of Crimson Dawn. Maul makes sense here in the timeline. There’s a gap between The Clone Wars Son of Dathomir and Rebels. Maul had criminal connections, and it would make sense that he would try to quietly rebuild a criminal empire but would be more inclined to rule from the shadows after his defeat in Son of Dathomir. It’s a cute nod for fans of the animated series. And it’s a ridiculous thing to spring on the general movie-going public. It’s a really bullshit thing that I would previously have associated with Marvel, a need for hyper-connectivity for uber-fans that I had hoped wouldn’t spread to my favored franchise. And yet, here we are. Why is this so awful to me? Because for most people, those who are casual viewers or who are fans of the movies or who just never bothered to watch the animated series, Darth Maul died in The Phantom Menace. And not just of a simple stab or fall. Dude got cut in half and fell down a seemingly bottomless shaft. It was absurd that he survived, and The Clone Wars took time to build him back up into a threat and to make this seem credible. New audiences don’t have that. Their reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Oh, cool reference,” or, “Holy shit! Maul’s back!” I’d guess it would be a more resounding, “HUH?!” Maybe I’m wrong (though I will say that while there was some scattered applause and laughter throughout the film during the screening that I attended, the room was silent throughout Maul’s reveal). As someone who understood why Maul would be here, it wasn’t shocking to me–I didn’t anticipate it, but I’d heard there was a major character from one of the older trilogies, and Maul made sense. There’s the other thing: Maul’s presence wasn’t radically shocking. And it didn’t really add anything to the story. It was the equivalent of a Marvel end-credits sequence (although it was, at least, in the film itself). Qi’ra could have reported to any higher-up crime boss. Bringing Maul into the film itself was weird, but I’ll admit that it was cool that they used Ray Park, the original physical actor, and Sam Witwer, the voice actor from the animated series, to fill the role.

All in all, I had a lot of fun, and I felt that the flaws were overshadowed by the film’s strengths. I could easily watch this movie again and again. It’s not one of my top three Star Wars films, but I think it’ll join those flawed-but-fun films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, entering regular rotation along those two as a frequently viewed title in this franchise that I continue to love.

New Star Wars Favorites

One of the best parts about reading the ever-expanding new-canon Star Wars literature is encountering so many cool new characters. And there are so many cool new characters!

Many of my new favorites are from Lost Stars. Thane and Ciena are such an interesting couple, so compatible and yet torn apart by fundamentally opposed worldviews. It’s not just that they happen to choose different loyalties. It’s that loyalty is a fundamental virtue in Ciena’s valley kindred culture, while Thane comes from a wealthy and abusive family, causing him to look skeptically on authority and leaving him without that same sacred devotion to loyalty. Their conflicting worldviews often result in misunderstanding each other’s intentions, not always because of a silly breakdown in communication but because they look at the same facts and can have the same attitudes but intuitively arrive at different reactions.

But both characters are cool on their own. Watching Ciena’s rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, even as she grows increasingly disgusted with it, was intriguing. And Thane is a brash hotshot pilot, a redheaded former smuggler who joins the Rebel Alliance just before Hoth and helps take down an AT-AT in that battle. What I’m saying, in other words, is that he’s basically Dash Rendar, if he was better written, not video-game-overpowered, and without the ’90s comic book pad-and-strap fashion.

But I also loved the awkward, empathetic genius Jude Edivon (gone too soon!). And Alderaanian Nash Windrider’s descent into Imperial fanaticism to cope with the loss of his home planet was an interesting (and surprisingly believable) twist. And I love basically every Wookiee ever, so I have a definite fondness for Lohgarra, the maternal elderly Wookiee free-trader who hires Thane on after he defects from the Empire and who eventually joins him in the Rebellion.

But it’s not just Lost Stars. I didn’t particularly love Battlefront, but the distant, cold bounty hunter Brand was fascinating. Okay, yes, distant, cold bounty hunter is a cliche. So is ice-blood sniper. But Brand had this weird loyalty to Twilight Company. After years slowly becoming disillusioned with the bounty hunter trade under the solidifying Galactic Empire, she found something in Twilight and its leader, Captain Howl. While she seems remote and uncaring, seldom chiming in and often slipping off without a farewell, she looks out for the soldiers in her squad. She becomes something awfully close to the heart of Twilight Company as Namir tries to figure out what to do when thrust into the leadership role. She doesn’t really have an arc in Battlefront because we see she’s already completed her own journey to arrive at the point she’s in. I’d love to see more of Brand (and some of the other badass new-canon bounty hunters like Cad Bane, Sabine Wren, and Ketsu Onyo). Gadren the warrior-poet Besalisk was a fun Twilight Company character, too, if even more of an archetype (I mean, his easiest description is warrior-poet).

I even really liked the quirky Givin mathematician Drusil Bephorin from Heir to the Jedi. She had a weird sense of humor, she often seemed to have such a cold detachment because of her math-and-logic-focused perspective, and yet she was committed to her family above all else. I was also partial to the Kupohan noodle chef and spy Sakhet; the Rodian weapons seller and Jedi fan Taneetch Soonta; and the wealthy biotech heir, expert sharpshooter and scout, and Rebel sympathizer Nakari Kelen, who would become an ill-fated romantic interest of Luke Skywalker (unfortunately introducing Luke’s romantic curse into the new canon, it would seem).

And I can’t forget that A New Dawn made me really interested in Kanan and Hera (and a shipper of their relationship before I’d seen an episode of Rebels), plus introduced me to the coolest bad guy in the form of Rae Sloane (whose characterization is also excellent in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, which I recently finished reading).

Finally, while not new characters, technically, I couldn’t be happier with the lovable losers Kabe and Muftak as portrayed in “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” story in From a Certain Point of View.

That’s all to say that more than just having fun new adventures, the new books have given me a variety of new characters that I care about, and I hope that many of them will have more stories moving forward. Rather than just applying the same old Star Wars archetypes, or only following the heroes from the films, the new canon’s already done a lot of cool new things.

I’m several books behind at this point, but I’m not tired of them yet, and I continue to look forward to future installments.

 

Battlefront: Twilight Company

Twilight Company (Star Wars: Battlefront, #1)Twilight Company by Alexander Freed

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled to finish this book, and now that I have, I feel conflicted about it. By book’s end, I appreciated more what author Alexander Freed was trying to do. But I don’t think that that purpose especially resonated with me.

Twilight Company is a novel adaptation of a video game remake of a first-person shooter in the world’s largest space opera franchise. If it had been a simple guns-and-glory spinoff, perhaps packed with heroes from the films who must show up in almost every Star Wars game to ever appear, then it would have been sufficient. But Freed delivers so much more than that. This reads like a true wartime novel: the soldier protagonists are constantly fatigued and overexerted, stretched thin on supplies and morale as part of a mobile unit always on the front lines of the war against the Empire, coping with long stretches of anxiety-tinged boredom that are punctuated by manic fits of bloody violence. Characters are not bulletproof like most of the core saga’s cast, and even relatively minor engagements could see the deaths of some of the most eccentric and entertaining personalities.

It’s still Star Wars, and so the protagonist, a mercenary who joined on with the Rebel Alliance after bouncing from war to war as a child soldier on his home planet, eventually reaches an epitome about how his unit’s leadership was able to find victory even through sacrifice, and hope even in the darkest of hours. Besides this central protagonist (who goes by Namir, only the most recent in a string of aliases), there is a large cast of characters with fairly well-developed personalities: idealistic Captain Howl, cold-blooded and indiscernible yet loyal ex-bounty hunter Brand, hulking alien warrior-poet Gadren, “fresh meat” drug-addicted Roach, callous veteran Ajax, vulgar and mumbling Twitch, scarred and stammering Charmer, and defecting Imperial governor (and artist, and logistics expert) Everi Chalis. Not all of the above survive, and there are many more characters who fill out the ranks of Twilight Company, some more prominently than others. Many of the characters are women and people of color, and there is a mix of alien soldiers as well, so the Rebellion in particular appears quite diverse in this book.

On the Imperial side, we have one stereotypical sadist: Prelate Verge, who believes that he can indulge an absolutely decadent life so long as he is absolutely loyal to the Emperor–and who believes that failure is tantamount to treason. He brings an old Imperial officer, Tabor Seitaron, out of semi-retirement to hunt down the traitor Chalis. Our view of Verge is always through Tabor’s viewpoint. Tabor is a no-nonsense military man who wants to see the crew working under him make it through the mission, and more importantly, he just wants to get back to his cushy Academy job. Tabor is not a good man; he is completely willing to accept the cruelty of Verge and stays in line for most of the story like a good soldier. But he is an honorable man. We also get the separate viewpoint of Thara Nyende, a stormtrooper on Sullust, whose story only intercepts with the others fairly late on. She probably is a good person, or would be if out of the Empire, but she genuinely believes that the Empire offers stability, order, and safety. Even by the end of the book, after all that happens, while she is no longer an active combatant, she is not “reformed” and still wants to serve the Empire. In short, while we have one more comic-book-evil villain, the Imperials in the story are typically more complex characters, and some normal humans are shown serving the Empire without any intention of defecting.

Major franchise characters are referenced but used sparingly. Darth Vader is a terrifying force of nature when he briefly appears, but his concerns are focused on Skywalker, not the small fries who get in his way. Leia and General Rieekan are name-dropped, and Namir has a heart-to-heart scene with a smuggler on Hoth who may or may not be Han Solo. Nien Nunb is a secondary character in the last third of the novel. And there are many small nods to larger new-canon Star Wars continuity: Count Vidian, Tseebo, the Crymorah, and so on.

So why didn’t I quite love it? Part of it was the language and pacing, I think. It was often stripped-to-the bone, efficient, clinical. An appropriate voice for a gritty war novel, but hard to stay engaged. And the sense of boredom and hopelessness, the long passages where characters are confused and fail to see the bigger picture–that sort of stuff works for a war novel, too, but it’s not the most entertaining read. I think bigger-picture, though, I just disagree with the tone of the book. A gritty and dark Star Wars book that is space opera’s answer to real contemporary accounts of war seems like just the sort of thing I would have asked for as a young college student, someone edgier and contrarian and determined to see this franchise grow up and deal with Real Issues (despite already being over a decade older than I was). I’ve mellowed since then, and while I think Star Wars is big enough to tell a wide variety of stories, there’s something a little bit hollow about trying to convey the real horrors of war via space conflict. Star Wars can be serious, but it’s for kids too. And it’s escapist, even when it does wrestle with Real Issues (as it always has, at least on a metaphoric level). There are plenty of good war novels out there, written by participants of actual wars, that show the horrors and boredom and honor and antisocial behavior and suffering and confusion and moral complexity better than this book does, simply because they are by real soldiers (or real journalists/observers) about real wars.

At the very least, this exceeded my expectations for what a video game adaptation could be (especially given that the first of the new Battlefront games didn’t even have a plot). But it’s not really what I’m looking for in this franchise, not anymore.

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